Picture of hands voting

How to be Fair in Academic Voting

by Steven M. Cahn

Here’s a common situation. A department plans to invite six candidates to interview for one opening. At the meeting where the vote is to occur, the suggestion is made that each member of the department be given three votes, and those six candidates receiving the most votes will be invited.

Suppose the department has ten members of whom nine prefer candidate A to all others, then candidate B, then candidate C, and on down to candidate Z. One member of the department, however, prefers the candidates in the reverse order, rating candidate Z the highest, Y the next highest, and on down to candidate A, who is rated the lowest.

Now the voting takes place. Nine members vote for candidates A, B, and C. The other member votes for Z, Y, and X. So A, B, and C each receive nine votes, and the next highest candidates are Z, Y, and X, each receiving one vote. So A, B, C, Z, Y, and X are invited for interviews.

The problem, of course, is that almost every member of the department hasn’t the slightest interest in Z, Y, and X, preferring D, E, F, and every other candidate to Z, Y, and X. Yet Z, Y, and X have been invited. What has gone wrong?

The procedure has violated an essential principle of fair voting. Each voter must be given the same number of votes as the number of candidates to be selected. Thus in this case each department member should have been given six votes, because six candidates were to be selected. Using that principle would have resulted in invitations to A, B, C, D, E, and F, who were preferred by the overwhelming majority of the department. Z, Y, and X were the candidates least preferred by almost all members of the department and should not have been invited.

Keep in mind, then, that when your department votes to choose a certain number of people for any purpose, voters need to be given the same number of votes as the number of people to be selected. In that way voting will be fair and accurately reflect the will of the majority.

When you vote for judges on Election Day, you are entitled to cast the same number of votes as the number of judges to be selected. The same principle applies in academic voting.

Steven M. Cahn is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Recent books he authored are Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia, 25th Anniversary Edition; Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well (with Christine Vitrano); and the forthcoming Religion Within Reason

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